For Ronnie Wood, every picture tells a story
The Rolling Stones guitarist on his lifelong obsession
I am in Paris for the Rolling Stones’ No Filter concert, in Ronnie Wood’s dressing room minutes before he is due on stage. Walking through the door, I find myself in what looks like a giant crèche, and every size of child and grandchild bouncing around on a thick rug woven in the pattern of Ronnie’s ‘Wild Horses’ painting. Ronnie greets me like a long-lost friend with a massive hug, no sign of pre-concert agitation.
Apparently Mick is somewhere round the corner doing a strenuous workout. Keith may or may not be reaching down to touch his knee a couple of times as his warm-up, but here there is no sign of preparation. A setlist pinned to the wall gives me a tantalising preview of what is to come over the next few hours, each song hand-painted by Ronnie. He does this for all the tours. It’s quite a thrill to see ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Start Me Up’ and ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ in bright yellows and blues and greens. ‘Charlie wants to come and say hello,’ says Ronnie, as though about to introduce me to great-aunt Agatha at a christening.
Minutes before this, I’ve been in another area backstage holding Gracie, one of Ronnie’s and his wife Sally’s enchanting twins, talking to tour manager Joyce. She’s worked with the Stones for decades. She tells me I went to the same school as a great friend of hers. This is turning out to be very un-rock and roll, but I like it.
It’s very heart-warming. It feels like a bunch of old friends are meeting up for a reunion to play a bit of music together. Which is obviously what they are doing. Just factor in a zillion pounds worth of lights, dazzling effects and a massive adoring crowd, three quarters of a million strong so far on the tour. They’re all waiting on the other side. I like the side I seem to be on, but how did I get here?
Rewind a few months to when out of the blue an email pinged on to my art website. It was from Ronnie and Sally Wood (I had never met them). ‘We just wanted to let you know that we love your art. We’re in Barcelona at the moment where Ronnie is painting also. We’ve just watched a Francis Bacon documentary which featured Maggi Hambling and we really love her work too.’
I don’t know about you, but I don’t often get emails from a Rolling Stone. I wasn’t sure which bit of the email thrilled me most — Barcelona! Maggi Hambling! It made me realise that art has led me on the most ridiculously exciting adventures and this was to turn out to be another one. The reference to Maggi Hambling was relevant, as she was my last great adventure.
I had interviewed Maggi for a piece about her favourite possession, a painting by Arthur Lett-Haines, one of the tutors at Benton End, the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. After we’d finished she roared, still chain-smoking, to the film crew: ‘Now bugger off, all of you. I’ve got to get ready for my masterclass tomorrow.’
The crew sheepishly retreated but in a moment of madness I said to Maggi: ‘Can I come?’ Maggi stared at me fiercely (Maggi does excellent fierce) for what seemed like about four days before she wrote on a scrap of paper: ‘10 a.m., bring charcoal.’ That was it. I turned up the following day, met a roomful of strangers and have never left. It has been the most significant period of my adult life and I’ve gained a group of wonderful and nourishing friends.
After the Paris concert, I tentatively suggested to Ronnie that I make a radio documentary about his life and art, and he said: ‘Yes, how about next Friday?’ which is how I found myself standing outside the purple front door to his home. Before this I had spent a week reading his very funny and touching teenage diaries, How Can It Be, and pored over Ronnie Wood Artist, the exquisite book of his paintings, drawings and sculptures. I’ve pestered him for a playlist and it is a musical feast. I recommend you sit down for an evening in a darkened room with Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and Chuck Berry, Eddie Taylor, Freddie King and Jerry Lee Lewis, Big Bill Broonzy, Donny Hathaway and Duke Ellington.
Ronnie’s artistic life is largely brushed over. But he’s been painting longer than he’s been making music. He started as a ten-year-old, signwriting for a local company, and even regularly appearing on the BBC art show Sketch Club. ‘To have a painting appear on TV on a Friday evening after school on Sketch Club: “Ronnie Wood from Yiewsley in Middlesex”! There was a competition and I won a place to exhibit at St Albans at Adrian Hill’s gallery. It was a trek for my mum and myself to go there and see the paintings hanging.’
Music was exploding in London as he grew up in his council house in Yiewsley with his older brothers, both commercial artists, who were bringing home musicians with banjos, guitars, saxophones, trumpets, combs and paper, harmonicas and washboards. ‘My brothers always had a band. They used to have a collection of instruments in the back room of the house. It had a hatch where cups of tea and coffee could be passed through so as not to disturb the art-school crowd. I was little Ronnie getting in the way. That house partied so much, when we left it had a crack down the centre.’
His brothers hugely influenced his musical tastes. ‘“Smokestack Lightning” is the first Howlin’ Wolf record that my brother brought home. It was a pretty earth-shattering moment — it changed my life.’ The rest is musical history, but running alongside his career in the Birds, the Faces, the Rolling Stones, with all the gigging, touring, drinking and the rest, are hundreds and hundreds of drawings and paintings, including one of Howlin’ Wolf, who had such a profound influence on his life. His art influences can be traced back to school. ‘My art teacher was a big fan of Georges Braque. I got to know about cubism. Art was the loosest lesson.’
His art collection is laid out over several floors of his house, and there is a magnificent studio at the top with views over the tops of trees and the London skyline.
‘Both art and music hold their position in my life. They bounce off one another and make me the person I am,’ he says. In a cupboard are rows of oil paints, left over from when Damien Hirst came to his rescue after Ronnie had reached rock bottom in 2008. After a lengthy spell in rehab, Damien kitted out a studio for him, stacked full of canvases, paints, brushes, easels and paints: enough to furnish a whole art school. ‘He knew how hard it was to swallow the challenge of owning up and surrendering.’ One of the first paintings was an abstract called ‘I Feel Like Painting’.
I leave with the suggestion that Ronnie joins my mentor Maggi Hambling’s master-class. ‘Great, yes. Ask her!’ It would be the ultimate show-and-tell if I took Ronnie along to the art class. Maggi and Ronnie, what a combo. But why not? Let the art adventure continue.
This article was published by The Spectator on 16th December. Interview by Anneka Rice. https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/12/for-ronnie-wood-every-picture-tells-a-story